In the shadow of the Appalachians, a young John Blackburn spent years observing his twin sister ride the family’s horses. “I played in the barn, I raced them across the field, but I had no real interest in them,” Blackburn of Blackburn Architects, P.C. confessed.
More than 40 years later, at the forefront of an architectural niche that courts the nation’s estimated two million horse owners and with 150 horse farm projects in his saddlebag, Blackburn is credited with raising the bar on barns to levels once inconceivable - elements such as skylights, recycled rubber, LED lights, solar panels, engineered bamboo and aerodynamic principles all hallmarks of his current and projected equestrian designs. What’s more, according to the firm’s projects manager, Daniel Blair, much of their equestrian construction would very likely qualify for LEED certification except that the USGBC (U.S. Green Building Council) doesn’t yet have a standard for agricultural buildings as they typically don’t rely on infrastructure.
“In 1983 I was working at KCF Architects and a friend of mine and I started talking about a partnership,” Blackburn recalled of his shotgun wedding to equestrian architecture, adding that his friend went ahead and got a one-room office in Georgetown to work solo for a while. With Blackburn still not transitioned out of KCF, fate intervened and the two formally joined up when a call came pointing them toward a prospective client in Middleburg, Va. The client, as it turned out, had purchased one of Jack Kent Cooke’s early estates and wanted to start a thoroughbred breeding farm: two barns; staff housing; service buildings, but with the stipulation that construction would reflect the landscape, or have “the Middleburg look,” Blackburn explained. “We had nothing to show in our portfolio except garage additions and porches, so my partner, who was from Middleburg, took some slides of structures there that may have been 200 years old and we projected them onto the wall, talking about generic shapes, forms and materials that would fit in contextually. Somehow we got the job.”
We’re Cantering Now
At the same time, the client had retained Cambridge, Mass.-based landscape architect Morgan Wheelock, someone Blackburn said had previously designed horse farms and had many theories about buildings that responded to the natural environment of the horse. Among these were issues of natural light, which affects the cycle of the broodmare, so the way light fills the barn - how bright it gets - is of primary concern, as are critical ventilation factors due to horses’ sensitive respiratory systems and their predisposition to hay and dust allergies.
From Wheelock, with whom he still collaborates, Blackburn learned about passive barn systems such as siting them perpendicular to the prevailing summer breeze, principles of lift, vertical ventilation and the like. Most barns, he and Blair explained, are sited parallel to the summer wind in order to open the front and back doors and catch the prevailing breeze, which allows air to traverse the barn lengthwise, a practice whose poor results are even exacerbated by the use of fans. “When this happens, the barn is sick,” Blair explained, because any illness a horse may have can be passed horizontally to his barn mates. Horses give off a tremendous amount of humidity, according to Blackburn, and in a confined space like a stall this breeds bacteria, almost like a Petri dish. When a structure is built to employ vertical lift, which includes the use of skylights, roof/eaves ventilation and heat from the sun on the roof to encourage lift (heat rises), the breeze then travels up and out through the opening and pathogens and allergens don’t have a chance to spread to other occupants.
Where lighting is concerned, Blackburn is adamant about not using artificial components because his signature barns, aptly named Blackburn Barns by a community of grateful clients, are built to maximize daylight. Except for a tack room and feed room in which the architects use compact fluorescents, and with the occasional exception of nocturnal arena use which some farms request, Blackburn said lighting is superfluous: not a good use of energy. At the same time, for arenas and for emergency lighting, the firm is investigating the use of LED lighting which Blair said does not attract bugs.
Learning to Post
When yet another recession hit and many architects were laying off staff, Blackburn and Blair put their heads together and like the horses for whom they build, decided the “fight” response was better than “flight.” Because the firm catered to the "upper 5 percent of people who could afford custom barns," according to Blackburn, it was time to create a more egalitarian process. The concept of adaptable, sustainable barn designs - a line of four pre-designed barns called Blackburn Greenbarns “for eco- and cost-conscious horse owners,” per the press material - was born during this period, with only the plans made available for purchase. “We said we would sell the plans and you can build it,” Blackburn recalled, “or we will take it and adapt it at some additional cost and help you build it. But, we then found that people couldn’t get over the next hurdle: How do you get to the point of getting the shovel in the ground?”
“We’d engineered it,” Blair said of the firm’s next step in enhancing and marketing the product, and making it more accessible, “but then the idea was to simplify and give people what they want, but also give them flexibility to make it their own.” With that, the idea of the four distinct green barns further evolved: two all-weather and two for Southern latitudes, each at a different price point ranging from $90,000 to upwards of $258,000, all with custom modification possibilities, but which were offered with the option of the additional services of two Blackburn-affiliated contractors: one based on the West Coast and one in Kentucky for the proverbial east and west of the Mississippi split.
The barns, named The Hickory, The Sycamore, The Cypress and The Birch, each with characteristics such as low-voc paints, recycled rubber pavers, or maybe three walls or light colored roofing with reflective finish, are endemic in their features and use of FSC-certified regional wood to either Southern or more Northern climes. Technology that includes greywater and rainwater harvesting, solar power and even the use of engineered bamboo, which Blair said “looks fantastic and is among the most sustainable materials,” is available.
Aside from sustainability issues, Blackburn said the health and safety of the horse are always paramount. In every project there are three things: the site; the owner; the horse, he explained. Though the first two may change, “...the care and concern for the horse never does, and that’s the thread that goes through all of this. We’ve been riding that horse for 25 years.”